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What to do with a slope?

 
Emma Fredsdotter
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Location: France (zone 8b-9)
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Hello folks!

I'm looking for some advice, tips, or just general thoughts on seriously sloping land.

After nearly a year without a garden, I am finally in the process of acquiring some small acreage. There is a lot of work to be done so, next, I want to draw up a general plan of what the land will look like "when finished" (even though that vision will change along the way and it will never be truly finished). Without some grand plan, I know all that work on the buildings and land will just overwhelm me. I am a bit stumped by the slope, though, as I have only ever dealt with flat land. And the books that I have read that mention slopes are usually talking about a slightly leaning suburban yard or quickly mention terracing like it's something I should instinctively know how to do.

The buildings are located on a plateau. There is enough flat land there to grow my vegetables and have a nice big herb garden, even when you take into account the unusable land (septic tank leach field), so I don't need to terrace the slope to grow annuals. Rather, I am thinking that I'd like to make it into a forest garden or forest-garden-inspired orchard.

It's pretty steep. Here I am standing just at the beginning of the slope. Across, you see the slope/river bank on the other side (I won't own that land).



And here's a picture more directly of the slope itself in its current state (lots of nettles, brambles and elder, so I'm thinking nitrogen rich soil). My side of the slope points to the south-east (more south than east).



So what would you do with this kind of land? Would you terrace it or just plant trees and shrubs as is (possibly using swales for water - but we're talking a famously rainy area so draught is unlikely)?

And here's probably the stupidest question of all time, when it comes to growing trees on a steep slope: how the heck do I prune them? I mean, for the northern side I could obviously stand on higher ground, but how exactly does one take care of trees one can't reach, without flat ground for a ladder? I don't even think terracing would help there, since the only plan I've ever seen of one with trees used the trees on the edge to fix the soil, leaving you with exactly the same problem. Someone tell me the answer isn't simply "stepover trees".
 
Jami McBride
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Emma Fredsdotter wrote:The buildings are located on a plateau. There is enough flat land there to grow my vegetables and have a nice big herb garden, even when you take into account the unusable land (septic tank leach field), so I don't need to terrace the slope to grow annuals. Rather, I am thinking that I'd like to make it into a forest garden or forest-garden-inspired orchard.

So what would you do with this kind of land? Would you terrace it or just plant trees and shrubs as is (possibly using swales for water - but we're talking a famously rainy area so draught is unlikely)?


I live in a 'rainy' area too, and I've found that many of the techniques for places with limited rain also work well in my area. Basically it goes like this - controlled water often has an advantage over non controlled water, think of erosion, and mineral depletion of soil as water runs quickly over and through the soil down slope. So I would still think swales, key line and a bit of terracing. Think about how water runs over your slope and how you can slow and control that water. I did a raised bed/box for my fig tree and used lots of mulch to help keep it moist during the hot dry summer months, and then winter with it's heavy rains came. I saw how the raised bed/box now helped the drainage around the tree roots, keeping it from sitting in a wet bog of soil.

Emma Fredsdotter wrote:And here's probably the stupidest question of all time, when it comes to growing trees on a steep slope: how the heck do I prune them? I mean, for the northern side I could obviously stand on higher ground, but how exactly does one take care of trees one can't reach, without flat ground for a ladder? I don't even think terracing would help there, since the only plan I've ever seen of one with trees used the trees on the edge to fix the soil, leaving you with exactly the same problem. Someone tell me the answer isn't simply "stepover trees".


Don't prune, grow miniature fruit trees or do what Masanobu Fukuoka does and allow them to just grow. But again if they were planted on or around a terrace using ladders would be easier.

And consider running animals on your slope for replacing nutrients and adding another layer of food to your forest. Most can handle slope better than we do, so what if you plant some animal fodder on that slope and mostly eliminate the need for you to prune, harvest and manage.....I know some have strong feelings about meat as a food source, but I believe animals are a vital part of land management for maximum sustainability. So consider designing that slope so it mostly manages it's self and not so you try to work it like a flat piece of land. At the very least I would cut waking paths if I would going to walk it for harvesting.

All the best,


 
Craig Dobbelyu
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As you peruse the permies forums you'll see that a lot of earth works are not as complicated as they seem. I've had pretty good luck with a shovel, level and sweat. Search for info on " marking/finding contour lines" "building ponds/dams/swales" understanding the basics about these structures will go a long way in achieving your goals.

I'm on a pretty serious slope myself. The fields were once hay/pasture land with many berms to control runoff. Since those days one of the berms has eroded in the middle, creating a spring flow straight down the hill which takes a lot of soil and debris with it during the spring snow thaw. The first thing I did was to start piling wood/branches and fill along contour lines to slow the water down. Adding a swale has kept the berm from blowing out during heavy flows. I've managed to slow it enough that I have a semi-permanent pond now. Before that, all the water was gone 2 weeks after the thaw. It's by no means enough to support anything more than insects and a few birds, but I'll hopefully be trading some fresh produce and pasture access to a neighbor for a few hours of work with his backhoe in the fall. Hopefully...

Best of luck.
 
Emma Fredsdotter
Posts: 32
Location: France (zone 8b-9)
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Thank you, Jami, for the suggestions and opinions. Aside from the fact that would harder to get at and treat problems in a tree if you can't get at it to prune it either, wouldn't just leaving the trees alone lead to successively less and less fruit, though (this is what I've experienced before)?

Craig Dobbelyu wrote:As you peruse the permies forums you'll see that a lot of earth works are not as complicated as they seem. I've had pretty good luck with a shovel, level and sweat. Search for info on " marking/finding contour lines" "building ponds/dams/swales" understanding the basics about these structures will go a long way in achieving your goals.


Thanks, Craig. I have been reading the forum for a couple of weeks, and searching too. My problem is not so much that I don't know how to make a safe terrace (although I don't yet), as the fact that I don't know if it's what I want to or should be doing.
 
Jami McBride
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As far as leaving the trees alone goes, there is more to it than just that. You will want to get trees that have never been pruned, and nursery trees are from the beginning. Do a search and look in Fukuoka's methods so you'll know your options. I have never tried his method so I'm not the best one to speak for them, I just know this is something Fukuoka felt he had solved in his own way.

http://www.permies.com/t/13003/permaculture/Fukuoka-quotes-not-pruning

http://www.google.com/#hl=en&sclient=psy-ab&q=Fukuoka+doesn%27t+prune+trees&oq=Fukuoka+doesn%27t+prune+trees&gs_l=hp.3..33i21.1081.9783.0.10031.21.21.0.0.0.0.413.5208.0j4j11j4j1.20.0...0.0.giWDZ-tZPfk&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.,cf.osb&fp=21c0595ad86507f8&biw=1417&bih=907
 
Alex Ames
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Your hillside is stable looking. With large quantities of rain you may not have to do much more
than plant your vegetable garden on the flat area and start putting edibles into the existing landscape
as you desire. If you install earthworks you run the risk of an erosion event. Lots of rain and new dirt
would not be a good combo. It is a very beautiful place just like it is.
 
Morgan Morrigan
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Location: Verde Valley, AZ.
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Big hill, big root cellar !

Dig IN.

agree with the dwarf tree recommendation. much easier to harvest and maintain. only trees i am buying now.

south side ? Chardonnay !

low tech terracing, and double as swales.

doesn't freeze ? mix in coffee trees.

Apricots don't require any pruning, but like the heat. Peaches need pruning to be productive.


 
Emma Fredsdotter
Posts: 32
Location: France (zone 8b-9)
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Jami McBride wrote:As far as leaving the trees alone goes, there is more to it than just that. You will want to get trees that have never been pruned, and nursery trees are from the beginning. Do a search and look in Fukuoka's methods so you'll know your options.

Thank you for the links - very interesting!

Alex Ames wrote:Your hillside is stable looking. With large quantities of rain you may not have to do much more
than plant your vegetable garden on the flat area and start putting edibles into the existing landscape
as you desire. If you install earthworks you run the risk of an erosion event. Lots of rain and new dirt
would not be a good combo. It is a very beautiful place just like it is.

Thanks, Alex. This is a bit along my line of thinking, but I'm also worried that I'm missing something due to inexperience.

Morgan Morrigan wrote:Big hill, big root cellar !

I like the way you think!

Morgan Morrigan wrote:south side ? Chardonnay !

Vines were actually one of the first things I thought of when I saw the slope. It really reminds me of the vineyards I've seen going on summer holidays in the French wine country. This part of France is not really considered wine country (although the neighbour grows a lovely trellised table grape), so for vines I'm more thinking table grapes on a pergola, for both sun for the grapes and shelter for us (an idea I've been kind of stuck on for years).

Morgan Morrigan wrote:doesn't freeze ? mix in coffee trees.

Alas, it does freeze. A little (or a lot, depending on where you're coming from, but I was born and raised in Scandinavia, and used to live in northern Scotland so for me it's nothing). It's USDA hardiness zone 9, so I could probably do tea.
 
Brenda Groth
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I also would be concerned of failure of swales or berms ..make sure you plant good soil holding plants when you make anything that will hold back water ..Jerusalem artichokes would do that as would things like daylillies.

you should be careful of dwarf fruit trees, look for natural dwarfs as dwarfs aren't as strong as standards, but standards can be difficult to harvest. Some pole varieties seem to grow well..and I do have dwarf pears that are very sturdy. Dwarf apples and peach family are less strong.

the grapes ..and or kiwi..would be helpful > I remember a few years back there was a gardening show out of Canada..if you can find it..and the host lived on a severe slope in probably zone 4 or 5..she put some posts in a zig zag fashion down the slope to use as a railing to get up and down..if you did a railing such as that you could grow your grapes over the railings..and also if you place your fruit trees correctly in relationship to the railing, maybe you could use the posts to support the base of your ladder to harvest the fruit? I also think that taking advantage of the hill in other ways is a good idea..it may make a good windbreak..sun trap..but also the root cellar is a great idea..also read gaia's garden by Toby Hemenway and Sepp Holtzer's book..Sepp uses the side of a hill to build shelters for animals into..which might be good for you for say goats, pigs, ?
 
frank larue
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the first thing i thought of reading your post was terracing. ive been building hugelkultur swales for a few seasons now with fantastic results across the board. ive put in small beds by hand and larger projects to manage millions of gallons with an inch of rain. finding contours is very easy. a-frame and water levels work great.

i'm helping a small farm convert pasture and a struggling birch stand into a forest farm and healthy woodland edge. the pasture is sloped and our design involves large swales to handle the water's speed and quantitiy and accommodate a path system much of the way. one important thing to keep in mind is the presence of year-round root activity. annuals hold the soil after they are dead only as long as it takes to decay. living roots will continue to support the food web and help it jump off with the spring thaw. i mix in my annuals amidst perennials.

berms on both sides of the path can provide your vegetables and herbs, along with coppicing shrubs that fix nitrogen or accumulate another valued nutrient. we will continue our method which is to prepare seed balls and let the little ones decide what's best, and do your best to inoculate seed balls with mycorrhizae and rhizobia bacteria. use the areas between berms for higher canopy plants. your zone would accommodate a great many nuts, pecans and hazelnuts are my favorites but walnuts are great too. i would avoid going the route of limited species production. the area seems dynamic, so the space should work with that spirit. throw in low-maintenance species and pruning becomes less of an issue.

vines can be grown on pergolas between two berms. posts are easy enough to install when the swales are dug. i've read of pergolas of kiwis, grapes, and yams being built below fruit tree crowns. perhaps there would be a way to design a system for mounting orchard ladders to the pergolas to reach the root crown.

lastly, try to keep the stable species present. you have polycultures there that may or may not adjust in succession. but its my opinion those changes should come from the system itself when possible, under its own terms.



and i love the idea posed by morgan morrigan!! there's no reason why you couldnt also incorporate a cold storage area. heavy tech is not as romantic but a back-hoe with an excellent driver who understands soil and water management could handle acres in a matter of days. going by hand and slowly is much more manageable though. you can dig a swale, plant it out, and move along as seedlings stratify and cuttings take root. financially speaking this is immensely more affordable. it just depends what type of timeline and budget you have. i go the protracted route for personal projects, and expedited routes for time-sensitive projects.

hope this helps
 
Kyle Ritchie
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The best way to approach the land is to think about what the land can do for you. Write down its benefits as well as its drawbacks. When you know what you have to work with, and let me emphasis that phrase again: work with, then you can truly begin to consider what the best thing to do with the land is. The land may not be right for producing crops for consumption. Even though you may want to produce an entire array of fresh produce, ready for harvest, the purpose of the land may not match your hopes. It decides what it can do, not the human. The land may be beneficial for many other aspects that do not involve the planting of trees such as: being a habitat for animals, being an educational plot, harvesting rain water, small perennial fruit shrubs that can grow perpendicular to the steep slope, or you can go hog-wild, plant some really amazing trees, and let nature take over. Being a bare plot of land, that grows nettles, brambles and elder may be its purpose in the natural ecosystem. It looks like it is flourishing beautifully. Don't forget how amazing a simple landscape can be. Also, don't fight nature. Listen to it, learn and plan accordingly

-Best
 
Kyle Ritchie
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Look up the "Maximilian Sunflower" as well as it's benefits.
 
Emma Fredsdotter
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Thanks for the tip, Kyle! Lovely flower, aggressively self-seeding and good for erosion control are all virtues for this project. I've put it down in my list, but since I noticed that it's an Aster you've now got me on a wild chase to see if I can find a native Aster that behaves similarly.
 
Irene Kightley
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Emma, your land looks a lot like ours. We used goats to clear the area and make paths but took them off after a year before they did any damage to the trees and wild shrubs. We also have very sloping parts and flatter areas where we grow most of our food but we've terraced a lot and I sometimes open up an area in the woods to put up a hen shed or plant a few more fruit and nut trees.

It's lovely having a slope; it's so much more interesting than flat land and you have the kinetic energy of the land to play with when you're designing animal sheds, waste and water. Here are some photos of what we've done - including a cool house.

















 
Jeanine Gurley Jacildone
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Irene, I'm not sure whether to be inspired or to be jealous. Your pictures are just sooooo amazing - as usual. I've never had an urge to visit France before - now I want to go just to see your place.
 
Sam White
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Hey Emma,

I noticed you mentioned a septic tank leach field. It sounds like a good place to grow non-food crops such as comfrey which can be used as mulch. Alternatively, you might consider fruit/nut trees, trees for firewood/timber, or coppice trees such as willow (basket making) or hazel (hurdles, pea sticks, bean poles) as well as firewood.

Sam
 
Emma Fredsdotter
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Your garden is really enviable, Irene! Gorgeous!

Sam, everything I've read on septic tanks tells me that trees are an enormous no-no in the leach field. Even fairly non-invasive trees, I'm told, will set root much father than expected (drawn to the constant supply of water no doubt) and ruin the system. Since fixing it is an astronomical expense for us (we could re-roof the entire house at the cost of replacing the septic tank), I'd rather avoid such issues all together. The leach field is really conveniently hidden away behind the house, though, perfect for outdoor storage, an out of the way composting system, a semi-shady wind-free spot for the bees, permanent clothes lines and that sort of thing.
 
Sam White
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Yes, of course, I forgot about the pipes. Maybe just a wildlife area with shallow-rooted plants then? Would work with the bees.
 
Tim Crowhurst
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Emma Fredsdotter wrote:And here's probably the stupidest question of all time, when it comes to growing trees on a steep slope: how the heck do I prune them? I mean, for the northern side I could obviously stand on higher ground, but how exactly does one take care of trees one can't reach, without flat ground for a ladder? I don't even think terracing would help there, since the only plan I've ever seen of one with trees used the trees on the edge to fix the soil, leaving you with exactly the same problem. Someone tell me the answer isn't simply "stepover trees".


You could train them so that the branches are horizontal rather than vertical. That way the fruit is at an easier height for harvesting as well. You could also use the branches to grow grapevines or edible annuals such as beans or climbing nasturtiums, planting them where the branches of two or more trees meet.

Grow parsnips near the fruit trees, and allow some to go to seed each year. In addition to getting free seed for subsequent years, they will attract predatory insects which get rid of certain unwanted moths. They are also delicious as a replacement for potatoes in gratin dauphinoise - add chopped walnuts and a sliced apple, and use a well-flavoured blue cheese like roquefort or stilton for the topping.
 
Patrick Thornson
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Goats. I gotta get me some goats.

I have a slope too and a pile of field rocks on one side. (Someone long ago cleared the top field on the land.)
I have the same questions and concerns as Emma.

What do I do with this slope? I know, I know.... swales and trees and get a food forest started. It's my damn job getting in the way of my true passion. Gardening WITH Mother Nature.
 
                    
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hi emma, could you please mention your soil condition/attributes of your slope...is it very large rocky, gravelly, or perhaps an slope of just pure dirt, sand, clay...its difficult to see from your pix. And it is good to dig a soil sampling hole in various places, perhaps dig even a meter deep to know what earthbound materials exist on your place. Sometimes you find a blown over tree/root ball, which reveals deeper soil conditions. Look to your soil at the bottom of slope for possibly the best soil around, also there may be 'signs' of finding earthbound water at the base of the slope, it might be good to know where that water (table) is, and how high upon the slope it generally exists. I imagine a cool breeze rises up your slope early, toward the buildings, be careful of a very hot afternoon breeze rising if ever the slope is not covered with plants. I like your view from the upper edge, a good place to watch the sun rise. What is your access to the bottom & the slope, I'm asking because perhaps one day you find a huge tree fallen, and you need the wood...do you have truck access to the bottom?

james beam;)
 
Robin Hones
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Emma - have you measured the slope (for example what ratio is it in the form of horizontal distance/vertical distance?) The steepness or otherwise will obviously affect what solutions can be suggested, and the side pitcure you posted could be misleading (it looks about 2:1?). If the slope is not constant then obviously worthwile to identify the major bands.
 
Nicole Castle
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Do you need to plant over this space? Because if the slope is stable and not eroding, what's growing there natively has value just as-is as habitat and forage for insects, etc. You could also overseed some other natives like wildflowers and herbs to add more variety and see what takes hold.

My slope is not as bad as yours and even so it's a pain to maintain or work on.
 
Emma Fredsdotter
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Tim Crowhurst wrote:
Emma Fredsdotter wrote:Grow parsnips near the fruit trees, and allow some to go to seed each year. In addition to getting free seed for subsequent years, they will attract predatory insects which get rid of certain unwanted moths. They are also delicious as a replacement for potatoes in gratin dauphinoise - add chopped walnuts and a sliced apple, and use a well-flavoured blue cheese like roquefort or stilton for the topping.

Parsnips are awesome in just about any situation. They're even good for making wine!

Being native Scandinavians, trying to eat locally, we're big on root vegetables. Half of the year, everything else is imported. Slice the parsnips, toss them in the oven with some black salsify and carrot, glaze lightly with honey, cold pressed oil (rapeseed, olive), and a little bit of fresh rosemary. For a really sweet treat and a pop of colour, add red beets. That's my favourite, early in the autumn before the need for warming stews. Serve with your protein of choice and a pesto made from green peas, sunflower seeds, oil, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper.

james beam wrote:hi emma, could you please mention your soil condition/attributes of your slope...is it very large rocky, gravelly, or perhaps an slope of just pure dirt, sand, clay...its difficult to see from your pix.

Hi James! I would if I could. Alas, I am not actually moving into the property until September so I haven't been able to get very deep into the earth yet. The top layer is moist and aerated. What's below the surface, on the other hand, I've yet to discover. The area is known for its heavy, peaty soils, and its granite. The former/current owner is an older lady who restricts her gardening to containers in front of the house, so no one has touched the slope (or the flat land except to mow it) for 20 years.

james beam wrote:What is your access to the bottom & the slope, I'm asking because perhaps one day you find a huge tree fallen, and you need the wood...do you have truck access to the bottom?

Thanks for all of the soil tips, James! I appreciate it! We don't have access to the bottom with any kind of machinery, although the neighbouring farmer has a tractor path down to the river that he uses to cross it in the low-water season. It's about 10 yards off our land, and it's no guarantee of course, but if we ask nicely he might let drive down there. Something to really think about - thanks!

Robin Hones wrote:Emma - have you measured the slope (for example what ratio is it in the form of horizontal distance/vertical distance?) The steepness or otherwise will obviously affect what solutions can be suggested, and the side pitcure you posted could be misleading (it looks about 2:1?). If the slope is not constant then obviously worthwile to identify the major bands.

Hi Robin! No, I haven't been able to measure the slope yet. I haven't been able to walk down it (only walk around it down a tractor path) since the current/former owner has never cleared it. My estimation, which of course may be completely off since we're looking at very tall nettles and not the ground, is like yours... about 2:1 in the eastern part pictured, and about 3:1 in the western part.

Nicole Castle wrote:Do you need to plant over this space? Because if the slope is stable and not eroding, what's growing there natively has value just as-is as habitat and forage for insects, etc. You could also overseed some other natives like wildflowers and herbs to add more variety and see what takes hold.

My slope is not as bad as yours and even so it's a pain to maintain or work on.

Hi Nicole! "Need to" is hard to answer, since we've obviously survived several months without having any kind of garden at all. If I want to maintain some level of self-sufficiency fruit wise, and not just annuals and the odd asparagus, I'm going to have to plant the borders of the land. Without any part of the slope, that means pulling down a couple of existing trees. But, as I said, I don't "need" it for annuals. I have enough easily managed annuals space to feed the whole family and then some. For the slope, I wouldn't want to do anything more than try to establish a food forest of some kind. Lots of self-seeding erosion control plants, fruit shrubs, and trees.

Right now, I'm honestly not so sure it has much value as is. At least not the eastern, less sloping, part, which is a monoculture completely overrun by nettles. The western part is a bit more diverse. I'm going out there again today and will be asking the current/previous owner about their lawn, and walk around for a bit to try to figure out if the eastern slope is saturated with nitrogen from grass fertilisers, from the leach field, or somehow from the neighbouring farmer's wheat field.
 
                    
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hi again emma,

I think some terraces cut into the slope would be good. Because your nettled field already has no trees!, therefore it might be good to have the terraces quickly excavated as an inexpensive initial beginning to...whatever. I wouldn't spend alot of money, perhaps the bulldozer man can cut 5 or 6 terraces in just a few hours at most, and then be gone to leave you with years to decide the finishing touches. Make sure the dozer operator NEVER touches/scrapes a tree, but also does not heap dirt upon the tree sides (like on trees at the bottom of the hill, and...shall not cut or dig anything within 15 meters of any tree (tree roots spread wayyyyyyyyy out yanno). Also huge rocks rolling down the hill is unacceptable, and will damage terribly all that a rolling boulder contacts (you don't want to be in trouble with your neighbor). Tell the dozer man, the finish should be 'neat & tight', not likely to change considering winter & spring will soon be upon you.

Once the terraces are cut, you can much more easily, dig out stuff, like erosion design/paths/rock work/raking, and your vision for your place will quickly change from a plot of nettles to a fun place to work in the sun. Because you have already thought 'terraces', I would trust your wild side and go for it!

james beam;)
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